This year, 2020, has delivered a shift in on-farm relationships between grower and picker, now being played out on hundreds of blueberry farms around Coffs Harbour, where the last of the winter fruit is being left on bushes and there are real concerns that summer berries, the Rabbit Eye variety, may fall victim to a discerning labour force.
In this climate pickers choose the right to say no to smaller berries and are in search for the easy-to-harvest, jumbo-sized fruit, such as the Arana variety coming out of the Costa breeding program.
The trend to choose large-variety berries over harder to pick smaller ones started less than four years ago in California, says Driscolls NSW production manager Tye Scofield, a veteran of blueberries in four countries, now based at Coffs Harbour.
"Buses of pickers would come to farms and get off and demand that they harvest only jumbos," he said. "If the farmer said no they would get back on the bus and drive away."
That trend has arrived on the North Coast and in this Covid year with a shortage of field workers, the issue has come to a head. Labour contractors are now telling growers how much money their workers will get paid if they must pick small fruit.
"It is a real concern this year," admits Adam Bianchi, CEO of the booming Oz Group Co-op, 100-per-cent owned by 140 farmers with a high-tech pack house in the old Bunnings store south of the city centre. Recent federal grant funding has helped to further mechanise operations.
"Now that borders are opening we are expecting a 'grass is greener on the other side' situation with pickers moving to Queensland. Right now we are ramping down from our winter fruit harvest and won't start again until the Rabbit Eyes are ready later in December."
In fact, pickers are paid 15pc more than the casual rate of $24.50 an hour to earn sometimes much more than $27/hr, depending on their individual production.
"First-day pickers question whether this system is worthwhile," says Mr Bianchi. "But this system is about being paid for effort. That is the foundation of a system which has been proven over time."
Sandy Beach grower Kellie Potts is already planning her next steps, as the last of her sweet winter fruit falls to the ground. The cost to pick at a time when the price for a tray fell to $18, or below parity, made no sense.
Ms Potts' next step is to replant OBs with jumbo varieties of blueberries while also sourcing her own pool of backpacker labour. Using her own social media presence, Ms Potts has garnered enough Australian labour to cover the hot and intense summer fruit harvest. Facebook comments by former piece-work employees spoke highly of the working conditions on her farm and this word of mouth proved useful in getting a helping hand.
At the packing end of the industry, which must deal with fluctuation in volume depending on weather, there is increasing investment in mechanisation to reduce dependence on fickle labour and to improve performance with robotic optics that can sense the softness of a blueberry 200 times a second.
In fact the co-op's new packing machine uses vacuum and rubber seals to lift punnets into boxes more carefully than by hand.
The Oz Group Co-op is well poised for investment, with its annual return as released during last week's annual general meeting showing a 10- to 15-per-cent growth this year on top of last year's phenomenal rise of 40pc - with all of those berries gobbled up by a hungry domestic fresh fruit market.
If there is a downside it is the wasted berries that can't find a home in spite of their sweet nature. For fruit with skin tears that might lead to botrytis while waiting on a supermarket shelf, those berries are flicked out the side of the sorter and as of last Friday are being snap-frozen, within nine seconds using compressed nitrogen and packed precisely into sealed bags that will be available from Coles next month.
Further investment will go into making products, with machines, like dried powder, juice, jams, wine and gin, from sweet and ripe rejected fruit that currently goes to landfill.
"To have a pack house mechanised makes sense," says Oz Group CEO Adam Bianchi. "That means we employ skilled people who are better qualified. However mechanisation is more challenging on-farm. We have 140 growers and 200 farms and they all have different characteristics."